Learning to Play
There are many styles of music that feature some degree of improvisation, such as jazz, blues, Hawaiian, country, and even certain classical music styles. In fact, in Handel's time, any self respecting harpsichord player in a duo or trio would be expected to improvise his or her accompaniment from a sketch of the bass line - much like reading from a "fake book".
In the music we play today, improvisation can run the gamut from slightly altering a melody to spontaneously composing a new melody over the chord changes of a tune. Improvisers notebook will look at musical tools and ideas useful for people who want to learn to improvise on the steel guitar.
The blues forms the backbone for much of 20th century American popular music. As one listen to Sol Hoopii or Benny Nawahi will confirm, even Hawaiian music wasn't untouched by the blues.
So ... when B.B. King rears back and takes a searing blues solo is he so overcome with emotion that his fingers just find the right notes? Nah, he knows several scale positions to use that will yield notes that sound good in a blues tune. (Not to say that emotion isn't a part of playing the blues - it's the hardest part!)
One of the most infallible ways for a beginning improvisor to create pleasing improvisations is to use the "blues scale". That's because all of the notes in the scale will sound good with almost any basic blues tune, in a major or minor key. The important thing is to use the scale with the same root name as the key you're playing in. The "blues scale" let's you play one scale over the entire chord progression with virtually no chance of hitting any "clunker" notes.
"Blues scale" is really a slang name for a scale whose formal name is the Pentatonic Minor scale. All the following examples are in the key of A and can be played in C6th tuning ( bottom to top string: C E G A C E) over a blues chord progression in the key of A.
Let's first look at the structure of the Pentatonic Minor scale in the key of A. Penta means five, but we've added the lowered 5th of the scale as a passing tone making this a six note scale. To understand the structure of the scale, we'll first play it entirely on the E string..
Scale degree: root b3 4th b5th 5th b7 root E____________ 5____8____10____11____12___15____17___ C __________________________________________________ A __________________________________________________ G __________________________________________________ E __________________________________________________ C __________________________________________________
The flat 3rd, flat 5th, and flat 7th are the "blue" notes that give this scale its characteristic sound.
Here are some positions for the A Minor Pentatonic scale in C6th Tuning. They all begin on the A root note.
E____________________________________5_______________________________ C____________________7___9_____________7____________________________ A_________________7________________________7___6___5_________________ G__________7___8______________________________________5______________ E______8___________________________________________________5_________ C__9_________________________________________________________________
This position allows a long, espressive slide to the 5th fret root :
E__5___3_____________________________________________________________ C__________4___3___2_________________9_______________________________ A______________________3_________________10__________________________ G__________________________2__________________9___8___7______________ E__________________________________________________________8____5____ C____________________________________________________________________
Here's a two octave version for more bar movement and a more "singing" legato sound:
E______________________________________________________15___17_______ C_______________________________________14___15___16_________________ A____________________________12___15_________________________________ G__________7___8___9___12____________________________________________ E______8_____________________________________________________________ C__9_________________________________________________________________
B.B. King uses a variation that starts from the 6th, adds the 9th and offers a more jazzy sound.
Scale degree: 6th root 2nd/9th b3 4th 5th E___________________________________________________________________5____ C________________________2____4_________________________________6________ A______________2_____3_____________________________________7_____________ G_________2_______________________________________5___7__________________ E___2___________________________________5____7___________________________ C___________________________________6____________________________________
The Pentatonic Major scale is basically the same as the Pentatonic Minor except it's found 3 frets below each minor pentatonic position and doesn't contain that extra note. The major pentatonic has a bright, sweet sound to most people's ears when compared to the "harder", "darker" sound of the Pentatonic Minor. The Pentatonic Major is used a lot in country music and you can also use it to add a blusey feel to a non-blues song.
Some Pentatonic Major positions:
E_______________________5_________14___12______________________________________ C_______________4___6_______________________13___11____________________________ A___________4_________________________________________12_______________________ G______4___________________________________________________11__________________ E__5_____________________________________________________________12___9________ C_______________________________________________________________________11___9_
Learning to improvise is similar to learning to speak a language. Before you can speak in complete sentences, you need to the learn vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, etc., but with time and effort, you'll become more and more conversant. But don't just play these scales from root to root. Seek out the melodies within the scale. Try playing the Pentatonic Minor over the I chord and the Pentatonic Major or BB King scale over the IV chord. Experiment to find the sounds that best express your own feelings.
Like Hawaiian music, the source of the blues sound is the human voice. The best blues instrumentalists imitate vocalists. Luckily for us, the steel guitar is perhaps the most voice-like of all musical instruments. One hint: vibrato is one of the most individualistic aspects of steel playing and blues playing seems to lend itself, especially at slower tempos, to use of vibrato. (Again, listen to B.B. King!)
Sources for more information: Like any other music you want to learn, listen to the phrasing of master artists in the idiom. Here's a short list of some of my idiosyncratic, personal favorites for blues:
Rhino Records has a 15 volume series of individual CDs or cassettes called the Blues Masters Series. The series highlights classic performances in all types of blues from the hardcore Chicago sound to swinging 1940's Jump blues. They're widely available in record stores, or call 1-800-35-RHINO in the USA.
If you have questions, suggestions for improvements, or additional information, please let me know.